Covid-19 remains in abeyance while Kiwis are at the bach and the beach this summer, but contingency planning for a resurgence shouldn't be.
More contagious strains of the virus originating in both the UK and South Africa have arrived with travellers in New Zealand's managed isolation facilities and the risk of a return to lockdown is rising.
Covid has spread into the community from managed isolation facilities at least half a dozen times in as many recent months. And scientist Shaun Hendy of the University of Auckland – who oversees most of the modelling that has informed government decision-making on moving alert levels – has warned that New Zealand risks a reimposition of strict level 4 rules if one of the more contagious virus strains escapes.
As policy goes it doesn't get much more blunt and undifferentiated than New Zealand's level 4 lockdown. As the setting is currently drawn, all businesses and worksites must close, regardless of the risk they pose through virus spread, unless they are deemed essential.
Essential is a somewhat arbitrary designation that roughly corresponds with the goods sold in a supermarket. That's how we ended up with grape-picking and wine-making that went ahead and logging that stopped back in late March, April and early May of last year.
In July, the Cabinet resolved not to visit levels 3 or 4 on the whole country again if at all possible, but it did not rule out such an eventuality.
It is therefore imperative that the parameters be redrawn in case those restrictions are deployed again.
Setting aside the question of whether any lockdown is commensurate with the risk posed by Covid-19, level 4 especially needs to change.
In particular, work that represents the greatest amount of economic activity with the smallest virus transmission risk should be permitted. Outside work is an obvious candidate.
There is evidence that virus transmission is low in outdoor settings. And the cost of keeping at home those hundreds of thousands of workers, including well over 200,000 building and construction workers and tens of thousands in foresty, is staggering.
Treasury estimates that level 4 cost the country some $2 billion a week in lost economic output. And in order to offset that shock, the Government deployed a sweeping wage subsidy to forestall a wave of job losses. That layered on an additional cost of some $10b, though the subsidy covered a wider range of circumstances than just business closure. Notably, the wage subsidy to the construction sector through the autumn lockdown amounted to $1.4b, the single largest chunk of the total funds paid out.
Indeed, in an August report for the Minister of Finance, Treasury estimated that allowing outdoor work at alert level 4 would reduce the overall cost of the setting by about 3.5 percentage points. Meaning that, by the estimates of the time, level 4 would curtail economic activity by roughly 36.5 per cent rather than 40 per cent, a difference of hundreds of millions of dollars a week even without the wage subsidy cost factored in.
Even Shaun Hendy is broadly in favour of amending level 4 to a setting he calls 3.5.
"There is a case for a more refined and targeted level 4," he said this week.
And though he has some worries about the particulars, he agreed that it makes sense to start by taking a closer look at outside workers. Indeed, he said one of his teams has done "a bit of work with the Treasury" on the prospect, though it is unpublished, and he couldn't immediately recall its particulars.
There are other areas of work too, crying out for reconsideration.
Manufacturing, especially where it is highly automated, might sensibly be allowed to continue at level 4, and at lower alert levels physical distancing could be dispensed with if other mitigating measures were put in place (to date alert levels 2 and 3 have required physical distancing in workplaces regardless of any other measures taken such as mask-wearing and perspex screens between workers).
These aren't just ideas pulled out of a hat, they've all been proposed by Treasury as modifications to reduce direct cost or improve productivity that remain in keeping with the Government's Covid elimination strategy.
New Zealand may never have recourse to lockdown provisions again.
From Friday, travellers originating in the US and the UK will be required to test negative for Covid before beginning their travels.
And a vaccine rollout is due to begin in April (the opposition National Party is pushing the Government to speed up the schedule which is slow by international standards).
But if politicians mean to keep a lockdown in their Covid toolkit, they need to sharpen it considerably.